In a fractured Bosnia, Croats call for change

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Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (AFP) – In a deeply divided Bosnia, the country’s Croats have issued fresh calls for sweeping electoral reforms as well as threats of a potential boycott of upcoming polls, raising fears that a new period of instability awaits the impoverished Balkan nation.

In Mostar, southern Bosnia, considered the heartland of Croats by the community, the echo of church bells accompanies the Islamic call to prayer along the divided city’s scenic stone bridge linking Croatian neighborhoods to a Muslim neighborhood.

But the sounds of harmony on the surface belie growing grievances among Bosnian Catholic Croats over what they say are flaws in the electoral system that have undermined their right to choose its leader.

Mostar was devastated during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, which fractured the country along ethnic lines.

Decades later, the upheaval among Bosnian Croats comes as secessionist threats from the country’s Serbian leader fuel fears that Bosnia is once again on the brink of conflict.

“Either we solve the problem by separating peacefully, or we make the house – the state – comfortable for everyone,” Petar Vidic, a 48-year-old former Croatian soldier, told AFP in Mostar.

The Bosnian Tripartite Presidency

Bosnia’s brutal war ended with peace accords in 1995 that split the country in two – one half ruled by ethnic Serbs, the other by a Muslim-Croat federation.

The tripartite presidency of the Balkan state alternates between a member of each community: Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

But the federation’s Muslim population – known as Bosniaks – makes up about 70% of its 2.2 million people. This gives them vast numerical superiority at the polls and de facto control over who can be elected to lead Croats at the presidential level.

“There are two Muslim members and one Serbian member in the presidency,” goes a common saying in Bosnian Croat political circles.

But for many Bosnian Croats, the issue is not trivial.

After years of discontent, many Bosnian Croats are proposing to boycott the upcoming general elections in October.

“Illogical”

At a conference in Mostar in February, Bosnian Croat parties met to plan their next steps, calling for urgent reforms. But they did not announce a total boycott.

“Formal conditions have not been met to hold the election until the electoral law is amended to ensure that all three ethnic groups are legitimately represented,” said Dragan Covic, the leader of Croatia’s largest party in Bosnia.

Ilija Cvitanovic, another Bosnian Croat politician, took an even harder line.

“If someone thinks he can…deprive the Croatian people of legitimacy, repress them, then he will have to answer for that,” Cvitanovic told reporters.

“There are two Muslim members and one Serbian member in the presidency”, they say in Bosnian Croat political circles ELVIS BARUKCICAFP

Croatian parties want a mechanism for the community to appoint its own representatives to the presidency and upper house, a move fiercely opposed by the ruling Bosnian party in the federation.

Current Bosnian Croat President Zeljko Komsic, who is effectively backed by Bosnian voters, also lambasted the idea, calling it “apartheid-based electoral law”.

However, for many Bosnian Croats, reforms are needed to avoid further divisions or possible secession in the already deeply fractured country.

“Yes, we should all have the same rights,” said Sima Pehar, a 78-year-old Croatian pensioner.

“Why should someone who is not elected by Croats represent Croats? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Everyone is leaving”

But critics of the recent push for reforms say it would only serve the interests of the political elite in what they say is a dysfunctional country that has continued to stagnate even after the end of the war.

Even in peace, they say, Mostar has long been ruled by extremists on both sides.

“Nothing will change for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the possible reforms of the electoral rules,” analyst Ivana Maric told regional television channel N1.

“It’s just another story to occupy people’s minds and keep them from thinking about concrete things.”

Bosnian Catholic Croats say electoral system has structural flaws that have undermined their constituency's right to choose its leader
Bosnian Catholic Croats say electoral system has structural flaws that have undermined their constituency’s right to choose its leader ELVIS BARUKCICAFP

Mostar still has the cinematic beauty of its famous bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, destroyed by Croatian militia forces in 1993 and rebuilt in 2004.

But people continue to flee the city in droves, part of a national phenomenon.

“Everyone is leaving Bosnia – Croats, Bosnians and Serbs,” said pensioner Pehar.

“The economy is a disaster. Those who govern us are brandishing the threat of war and people are fleeing.”

Meanwhile, Western-backed negotiations over possible reforms have stalled, sparking fears of a boycott, further unrest and a possible push to dissolve the Bosnian Muslim-Croat federation.

“I am convinced that the crisis will continue if the electoral law is not changed,” said analyst Zoran Kresic.

“It’s bad for the whole of Bosnia and its Euro-Atlantic future, and it will unfortunately trickle down to the people.”

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